The Potomac - Poetry and Politics - Roger Castleman
May 2008 - THE POTOMAC

Find the Poem
   Roger Castleman

Dear Julia:

My older brother died unexpectedly last week.  He lived in Albuquerque.  I hadn’t even realized he was ill.  The first I learned he was sick was an e-mail from my mother on Friday saying he was in the hospital with kidney failure, on dialysis.  Then she called Saturday evening to tell me he died.  Multi-organ failure.  My mother and his wife both mentioned a “deep infection,” but Sally chose not to have an autopsy, so we’ll never know what it really was.  Cancer?  Like our father?  I don’t know, if the information could have been helpful to me or their kids, who after all share the same genes.  Ben was cremated.

I flew to Detroit to accompany my mother to the funeral since she's not able to travel alone.  A friend drove her to the airport from Potawatomi Rapids. The airline we flew on took Chicago as a hub.  I had to get to Detroit via Chicago and then we got to Albuquerque changing planes at Midway again.

The funeral was at the Catholic church.  Sally was Catholic, and Ben was after his fashion, though he hadn’t converted.  It was the first time I’d gone to a mass.  There was a huge emphasis on life-after-death, described variously as “in Jesus” and “in love.”  I wasn’t sure if this was just to comfort Sally and my mother and the kids, or if they always hold out that promise as a centerpiece of the service. There was a huge writhing Jesus on a cross on the wall in front, looking down on us.

Next day my mother and I got on the plane back to Chicago. We made it out of Chicago ahead of the blizzard and I got her to Detroit Metro to her ride back to Potawatomi Rapids before going back through security (the shoe-removal routine is ridiculous and humiliating) and noticing on the monitors that there was serious weather in Chicago which was going to affect my travel.  I had to go back to Chicago to get the flight to Baltimore.

My flight into Chicago, from Detroit, skidded down the runway and when finally it stopped, all the passengers applauded. The next flight, which actually originated from the Baltimore airport, was the one that skidded off the runway and into a neighborhood, killing half a dozen people on a city transit bus.  You could see the swirling lights of the emergency trucks off in the distance the rest of the night.

The airport was closed and all flights canceled.  I had only a carry-on bag, but at the jetway in Detroit the stewardess had made me check it to Baltimore even though it would have fit under the seat—so when all the flights canceled, I had to retrieve it. Of course, nobody knew where it was—they just shoved all the luggage from all the canceled flights through the chutes and it swirled around eight different carrousels. I wandered around among these for about an hour, in the wee hours of the early morning, despairing that I'd never find it. I’d ask one attendant if he’d seen luggage with BWI tags, and he’d say he thought he saw it on carousel three, but when I went to look, I couldn’t find it and another an attendant would tell me carousel eight.  It was obvious that nobody knew anything. My bag had my suit, my electric toothbrush and a throwaway camera full of undeveloped photos I'd taken of the immediate families, at the funeral—irreplaceable images—as well as the usual dirty socks and underwear. It was like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. I wandered around for about an hour inspecting bags, watching the carousels swirl around. Eventually my little brown bag sprang out at me. I felt like I'd won the lottery.

Then I had to get my ticket changed so I could get a boarding pass and submit to the security routine (taking off the shoes is so ridiculous).  I snoozed on a molded plastic seat at the gate for a few hours listening to a canned overhead message endlessly repeating, “The automatic walkway is about to end . . . the automatic walkway is about to end . . .” All hotel rooms in a 75-mile radius were taken, but just going about trying to get one seemed too arduous anyway.

Finally got on the 6:05 AM flight to Baltimore, which left around 7:30, after they rounded up a crew.



Dear Hector: I’m sorry about your loss.  How old was your brother?  Your flight sounds dreadful, but at least your mother didn’t have to go through the ordeal in Chicago, and at least you weren’t on that flight that killed all those people.  How awful!  The news kept replaying the story over and over and over again the way they always do these pointless tragedies.  There may be a poem in your airline adventure, at least.  How are you feeling? 



Julia – Ben was 57.   There may be a poem in my sister-in-law’s decision not to have an autopsy performed, too.  Hector


H – Yes, all that not knowing.  J.

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